Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Deep Tennis: The Gods at War
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Deep Tennis: The Gods at War 11/27/2007 - 3:25 PM

RocketHere's my latest Deep Tennis Q & A post from over at No Mas. I've got a Davis Cup preview post up at

"Steve, I was really into those Sampras/Fed matches, and just the concept of two dudes who have a... well not just a claim, pretty much a complete ownership right now of the Best Player Ever debate going head to head. Other than the Sampras/Fed Wimbledon match, are there any other matches historically where two guys with such a claim played each other competitively?”

The Roger and Pete show has been better, more competitive, and more buzz-generating than any fan had a right to think it would be. But that may have been part of the plan, as they have another match scheduled for Madison Square Garden next March. A win by Sampras this weekend just made that one a lot more enticing, wouldn’t you say?

Men’s tennis has a long history of aging legends going down valiantly to the big dogs of the day. In the Pre-Obscene-Money era, the best guys hung around as long as they could and often overlapped with the next generation. You can trace a line of descent from Bill Tilden, who dominated in the 1920s, to Federer in just five matches.

1941: Tilden, 48 and 10 years past his prime, plays 25-year-old Don Budge, who had won the Grand Slam two years earlier, in a 58-match tour. Tilden loses 51, but wins seven.

1957: Budge, 41, beats the No. 1 pro in the world, Pancho Gonzalez, 29, in straights in L.A.

1971: Gonzalez, 43, beats 19-year-old Jimmy Connors in three sets, also in L.A.

1989: Connors, 36, beats Sergi Bruguera, a future French Open champion, in Germany

2000: Bruguera, 29, rolls an 18-year-old Federer 6-1, 6-1

Tilden: five times as good as Federer!

As far as all-time greats going at each other face to face, that tends to happen as one is on the way up and the other on the way down. By definition, there’s room for only one alpha dog at a time—if Fed and Sampras had played over the same years, neither would own as many Slams as he does today. Perhaps that explains why the Borg-McEnroe Wimbledon matches are so well remembered. At the time, Borg was beginning to be called the greatest player in history; three years later, many polls had McEnroe as the Goat (greatest of all time). Their rivalry is the only time I can think of where two guys at that very, very, very top level went head to head in their primes.

Here’s a list of a few of the other legend vs. legend face-offs from the relatively recent past.

Rod Laver d. Pancho Gonzalez, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, U.S. Pro Championships, 1964
Until the Open era, a top player would typically ascend to a position of dominance in the amateur ranks and then, to make a buck, he’d disappear into a pro tour that consisted of one-nighters held in gymnasiums across the world. It’s too bad these events weren’t better covered, because they featured big tournaments and hundreds of matches between all-time greats—one decade’s best player would have to dethrone the previous decade’s. The biggest annual event was the U.S. Pros, at Longwood, outside Boston. By ’64, Gonzalez, the reigning champion of the 1950s, had won eight U.S. Pros. He went for his ninth in a massive storm against Laver, who had won his first (amateur) Grand Slam two years earlier. They played through the rain and wind—men were men, etc.—and by the time it was over the world had a new best player. Laver would go on to win the event five times.

Laver vs. Bjorn Borg
I had no idea until I looked it up yesterday that these two had even played a real match. But by the ATP’s calculations, they faced each other seven times from 1974 to ’78 , as Laver was aging and Borg was rising. Borg got the better of him in five of those matches, including the last four. The first time they played, on carpet in Barcelona in ’74, the baseliner Borg sent the net-charger Laver home 6-1, 6-1. (I wonder how many times in his career the Rocket lost by those scores?) Their best match came in Dallas the following year, also on carpet. It was a long five-setter won by Borg.

I’ve seen a tape of a semi-exhibition tournament they played in Hilton Head in 1977—watch two minutes of it here (with Pancho commentating; talk about a Goat-fest). I remember Borg, so it was the 30-something Laver who was the revelation for me. I haven’t seen many clips of him, and I was awed by the consistency of his shot-making—he could do anything with the ball—and his high-energy, all-court attack. (Check out that low forehand volley from no-man's land.) You could see that John McEnroe learned a lot from watching his fellow lefty as a kid. On this day, neither Borg nor Laver seemed to have a distinct advantage over the other. Like Federer and Sampras, they were from slightly different eras, but they belonged on the same court.

Borg vs. John McEnroe
As I said, we remember this rivalry well because it was that rare moment in sports when two of the best ever are at their peaks at the same time. No wonder Borg quit when McEnroe took his spot at No. 1—he may have realized that there was only room for one Goat at a time, and he couldn’t conceive of himself as anything else.

PeteAs far as how their games matched up, I think my fellow TENNIS editor Pete Bodo had the best take on it: Borg made himself virtually unbeatable because he was willing to play longer points and hit one more ball into the court than his opponent; McEnroe came along and negated that advantage by ending points as quickly as possible. Borg couldn’t counter it, and their 1981 U.S. Open final, which McEnroe won in four sets, sent the Swede into retirement at age 26 and spelled the end of the last golden era of men’s tennis. It would take McEnroe a couple of years to adjust to not having another Goat to play. He could never respect Ivan Lendl the way he did Borg.

Pete Sampras vs. Ivan Lendl and McEnroe, 1990 U.S. Open
The next era-shattering event occurred at the Open nine years later. I’ve written here before about Sampras’ mind-boggling quarterfinal win at 19 over Lendl, who had reached the previous eight Open finals. But Sampras followed it up by ending McEnroe’s last real chance at a Slam in four sets. McEnroe had been usurped by Lendl five years earlier, but the two played what could be called the same game—they were flip sides of the same 70s-80s coin. In this match, Mac was playing against a new type of player. Sampras brought the Big Heat, and all of McEnroe’s chips, spins, and angles couldn’t hold it back. He was done for good. Power tennis had just gotten a little more powerful.

Sampras vs. Federer, 2001 Wimbledon
Funny how these things go in decades, isn’t it? Eleven years after Sampras announced the future at the Open, he faced it himself at Wimbledon. This was the only time the two current Goats played each other for real. Federer won a long, winding, intermittently brilliant five-setter. He broke down afterward, and Sampras gave him what I’ve always thought was the most dignified handshake in the history of the sport—class of the titans, I guess you could call it. Here's Sampras post-match interview

Playing-wise, what sticks out now is how often Federer came to the net. The grass was a little quicker then, and it was still the consensus wisdom that you had to serve and volley to win at Wimbledon (Lleyton Hewitt would put that idea to rest the following year.) Plus, against Sampras you had little choice. Unlike today’s players, he could take the net from you if you didn’t take it from him first. The differences in their games are clear during this match: Sampras hit a heavier, more penetrating ball; Federer was smoother and more consistent all around. The new all-baseline era was about to begin.

Sampras vs. Federer, 2007
That brings us to last weekend’s exhibitions. There’s only so much you can take away from an exo. Not only are the players not giving their absolute best, they’re not even really allowed to; a lopsided win is the ultimate faux pas in these things. Still, I was struck by one thing: Sampras’ serve. I’d forgotten that it was the most effective single stroke in the history of tennis. Smooth, efficient, technically dead on, it was still good enough five years later to keep Sampras in these matches by itself. I know Federer wasn’t going out of his way to break Sampras, but I was surprised he didn't get a better read on his serve. I’m used to seeing Federer handle even the most lethal deliveries with nonchalance.

Fedpete1Over the past year, I’d gradually begun to believe that Federer in his prime was a better player than Sampras in his—Fed just has more ways to beat you. I’m not going to change back because of three exhibitions on fast courts, but seeing that Sampras serve again was enough to make me say, “Hmmm, not so fast…” It’s classic hedgehog-fox: Federer knows lots of ways to win, but Sampras knows one big way.

Honorable Mention
Andre Agassi vs. Jimmy Connors, 1988 and ‘89 U.S. Opens; Andre Agassi vs. Roger Federer, 2004 and 2005 Opens
As an 18- an 19-year-old, Agassi beat an aging, angry Connors twice at the Open, the second time in five sets. As a 34- and 35-year-old, he lost two close matches to Federer, the first time in five sets. The standard line in tennis is that you can’t compare eras, that there’s no way that 5-foot-8 Rod Laver with his little wooden racquet could have stood on the same court with the 6-foot-2, midsize-wielding Federer. I’ve always agreed, but Agassi’s career—and, to a lesser extent, the Borg-Laver and Fed-Sampras exhibitions—makes me wonder whether that concept is as self-evident as we think. Agassi, who was never a candidate for greatest-ever, was there to finish the former No. 1 Connors off when he was a kid, and he was still there to challenge the next era's No. 1 two decades later. (In fact, he gave Fed his biggest challenges at the Open each of those years.) Who knows, maybe tennis’ eras aren’t as different as we think, and the very best would have found a way to compete on their own terms in any of them. Maybe all we can say about Laver, McEnroe, Sampras, Borg, and Federer is: Once a Goat, always a Goat.

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Posted by fedfan 11/27/2007 at 04:13 PM

You've confirmed my feeling that comparing great players of different eras is often like the old apples and oranges thing. You've reminded us of what a classy guy Sampras was, and how unheralded he was by non-tennis sports media in his own time. I will never forgive Sports Illustrated for putting Kournikova on its cover the week after Pete won his last, record-breaking, Wimbledon. Per my moniker, I'm a huge admirer of Federer, but I was furious when the young whipper-snapper beat my then favorite, Sampras, at Wimbledon in 2001.

Posted by Robin Pratt 11/27/2007 at 05:02 PM

Steve, Thank you for this column which gives a needed perspective. This is especially true as today's college students were not born when Reagan was President and don't remember the Iron Curtain, etc. Many current black baseball players don't know who Jackie Robinson was. has a section on the History of Tennis with clips of Tilden, Vines, Perry, Hoad, Kramer, Gonzales, Sedgman, Rosewall, Laver. I know I only see clips of them, but those men could play and were good enough athletes to adapt if they had been born in a different era. It obviously took more skill to play then with the old equipment so I think the old players would adapt better this way than the other way around.

Here is what I have seen on those clips. MOst of the former greats could and did hit the modern forehand. Not often, but they could do it when they had to. I think it took too much effort to do it all the time as they do today. One more striking clip--Fred Perry hitting a bona fide swinging volley with a continental, ping-pong grip. Vines averaging 2.5 aces per game at Wimbledon.

To add to your recollection, I think I read that Hoad took out Laver 12-13 times in a row when he turned pro, so how can Lew not be in the GOAT discussion. Laver said he modeled his game after Hoad who could do anything with a racket even back then. Gonzales said Hoad was the only one who could beat him when he was playing well. Kramer (who has seen them all) ranks Hoad's talent second to none, and Gonzales the best competitor.

I like the way you ended your post.

Yes, Laver would have won several more majors if he had not been shut out 1963-1967. But would he have won as many as an amateur if Gonzales, Hoad, and Rosewall had been playing open tennis? How mamy would Pete have won if three majors had still been on fast grass?

But back to your point. Roger could not really handle Pete's serve on a fast court. And many aging champions have been able to stay with much younger greats for a short time or every so often. The Tilden example is the most amazing (48 is way different from 36). And I saw Pancho beat Rosewall, Newcomb, and Ashe in succession to win at Vegas when he was past 40. He rolled over Ashe in the final.

There is one thing I do know. Only Roger could go back to playing under pre 1970 conditions in 2008 and still be dominant. More so. The conditions back then took away most advantages of the two handed backhand, requiring Roger's style and flexibility. He would hardly miss a beat.

Thanks again for a great perspective that I am afraid few will appreciate fully. One advantage of being as old as I am.

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 05:11 PM

"Maybe all we can say about Laver, McEnroe, Sampras, Borg, and Federer is: Once a Goat, always a Goat"

Well said, Steve. This is a great post.

Robin: Thanks, I will have to check out that site for those old clips. I've seen a few isolated clips (which I have saved at home - e-mail me if you'd like them) of Rosewall and Budge's backhands, and Hoad and Gonzales' serves.

Posted by TG Randini 11/27/2007 at 05:13 PM

Here's the way I always structure the GOAT debate:

The planet Zincon is far more advanced than Earth and can zap our planet into dust with one quick blast from some death ray. Zincons are war-like but sporting... so instead of merely zapping our planet... they offer a contest on their planet.

A tennis contest.

We get to send one emissary from anytime in our history to their planet. If he wins, Earth is saved. If he loses Earth gets zapped.

We don't know what kind of surfaces they have on Zincon. They could be grass, clay, hard courts, or styrofoam.

Who do we choose as our emissary? Whoever we choose is our GOAT. Our champion for the joust.

And it ain't Sampras. (Wouldn't trust him on clay, much less styrofoam or Zincondust.)

It'd be the Fed. The complete game.

After Fed, I'd take Laver or Borg. Each of them could deal with a quick OR slow surface. Sampras isn't even top three.

Posted by TG Randini 11/27/2007 at 05:16 PM

And PS about those Fed-Pete exo's:

C'mon already! They're exo's! Fed was giggling half the time. And after Pete asked him to throw a bone after losing the first two... Fed did.

Posted by Grant 11/27/2007 at 05:21 PM

As for how others have structured the GOAT debate, see medieval philosophers RE: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Great post Steve.

Posted by TG Randini 11/27/2007 at 05:28 PM

And further...

Fed and Pete played once for real. It was in Pete's 'house' and on Pete's surface. Pete was maybe a bit past his prime (still good enough to win the US OPEN a few years later, though... so he wasn't a doddering old gent in a wheel chair) and Fed was still a mere babe.

Fed won.

And one all-time great played both of them in their primes while (himself) still playing at a very high level.

Andre Agassi.

And Andre said Fed's better.

Score? Fed 2. Pete 0.

Pete better hope the Fed doesn't get wind that some rather stupid Yankees take exo's serious. 'Cause if the Fed takes Madison Square Garden serious, there will be a bagel.

Posted by TG Randini 11/27/2007 at 05:31 PM

Physicists conclusively proved in 2004 that 87 angels can dance on the head of a pin, if the pin is positioned vertically upright.

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 05:32 PM

Steve: You said that "Sampras hit a heavier, more penetrating ball" that Federer in their Wimbledon match. Sampras was known to put a lot of lead tape on his racquet head (I recall Annacone commenting on trying out Pete's racquet in practice once and saying how difficult it was to hit with it). How heavy was Sampras' racquet compared to the wooden racquets of earlier generations and the current racquets like Federer and others use?

Posted by skip1515 11/27/2007 at 06:35 PM

Really nice, Steve. Thanks.

1. Anyone who thinks players in days gone by weren't fit, strong, buff, ripped or what-have-you, should take another look at that photo of Laver

2. I've written this before, and learned it from someone else and so can't take credit for it, but we tend to put on the highest of our personal pedestals those who we revered in our youth. These pedestal-sitters keep the high ground forever, against all comers, because they were our heroes when we were young enough to have heroes who were perfect.

With this in mind, and since someone upthread brought up Kramer, it should be mentioned that Kramer named Budge as his all time #1 some years ago.

3. I can't cite a source other than Mr. B, who told it to me, but supposedly Kramer said he didn't become the best in the world until he switched to a heavier racquet. In those days heavy meant Heavy, probably 15 ounces, maybe more.

When I was a kid we didn't walk to school with hot potatoes in our pockets, uphill both ways, but tennis racquets did come in light, medium and heavy weights, and with grip sizes up to 5.

4. In line with #2, Steve I wonder if you missed something in not mentioning Laver and Rosewall's decades long h2h.

5. Sampras' demolishing of McEnroe was astonishing. A sea change occurred in one match and, outside of diehard tennis fans, no one who read the sports pages even realized it.

And thanks for that first photo. It's just great.

Posted by skip1515 11/27/2007 at 06:39 PM

P.S. Steve, I have that Laver/Borg Hilton Head match on dvd, and got it from , where I've bought a number of matches both old and recent. I recommend the site.

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 06:46 PM

skip: The size of Laver's left arm in that picture is astounding.

I don't recall seeing the Sampras-Lendl match when it happened, but did watch Sampras-McEnroe back then. The power of his serve and forehand really stood out to me.

Also, thanks for the link - will have to check it out.

Posted by monterey 11/27/2007 at 07:15 PM

Great article, Steve.

I was wondering....the fact that Borg refused to take up McEnroe's challenge, doesn't this somehow stain Borg's legacy? You're right, it was very unique in that two GOAT candidates were facing one another in their primes, yet one flinched in a way. Sure, their H2H is 7-7, but the whole thing seems very unsatisfying. It's like Roger walking away from Nadal's challenge at the height of his game. What would people say about that? I'm sure it wouldn't be very complimentary towards Roger.

Posted by KP 11/27/2007 at 08:08 PM

Steve, the atp site is a bit suspect on head to heads prior to 1980(they don't include Davis Cup matches, and several other important events)

also, I've found many mistakes on actual scores.

Like that Laver vs Borg match at the '75 US Open, actual score was 6-1 6-4 2-6 6-2. not 6-4 2-6 6-2, which is listed on the atp site.

What I find most interesting about the head to head is that Laver beat Borg on clay(!) a month before Borg won his 1st FO title. So many mock Laver's era for whatever reason(the 3 grass slams is a popular one) but another reason is that there supposedly wasn't much depth on clay when he won his 2nd slam. Yet he beat the GOAT on clay, so maybe he was the real deal on ALL surfaces?

Posted by KP 11/27/2007 at 08:13 PM

this is a report from the NY Times about that Borg-Laver US Open match from 1975. Great read, & it shows how surfaces were already changing the way the game would be played.

also interesting that they played doubles together!

"The Rocket, usually a slow starter in big matches, responded with a flurry of volley slams in the third set, plus some marvelous stop volleys, to give his backers hope.

“I was looking for my rhythm,” he said afterward, “and for a while I had it. My confidence soared when I took that set. But Bjorn has all that topspin on both his backhand and forehand, which makes the ball pop up. That led to my missing, especially on some big points.”

Laver had some criticism of the center court. “I haven’t seen a clay court where the ball bounces so high,” he said. “I had to keep jumping up to get it back. For my game, I need my feet solidly on the ground, not sliding and slipping and jumping up all the”

Laver admitted that his era as No. 1 was over but blamed the surface rather than his age for his decline. “People brought up on clay don’t get so shaken up by approach shots anymore,” he explained. “They can retaliate on a slow surface with good passing shots a lot more easily than the ones brought up on grass.

“Besides, I’m not fast enough any more to pick off those passing shots. In fact, it feels a bit strange slipping on this new surface and trying to hit the ball at such a high angle. That’s where the difference is today. You have to learn how to hit the ball from here [pointing above his shoulder], plus perfecting that topspin shot from the baseline. That’s the safe new way to play now.”


“Yes, but not that disappointed,” he said. I’ve had my shakes over the years. It’s time for the younger players to take over.

“C’mon, Bjorn,” he said to his doubles partner, “it’s time for you to carry me now.”

Posted by KP 11/27/2007 at 08:18 PM

skip1515, I buy matches from that site all the time. I strongly recommend getting the '69 Ashe-Laver W SF.

The shotmaking is amazing, I didn't expect to see so many clean winners off the ground by both players. It seems more 'modern' than the Borg-Mac encounters. Laver was even hitting inside-out forehands.

Ashe learned the hard way its not a good idea to try to hit through Laver, he loves pace.

Posted by another boring Federer post 11/27/2007 at 09:00 PM


Posted by skip1515 11/27/2007 at 09:00 PM

KP, I've always maintained that a review of Laver's match resume shows that claims that he was top of the pops on grass, and grass only, are way inaccurate. Anyone who wins the Italian more than once, 6 or 7 clay titles between '69 and '74, and frequently went deep in clay tourneys is simply not a one trick pony.

Similarly, like McEnroe (though not to the same degree), Laver's doubles resume is pretty outstanding, too.

I also have that dvd of the Laver/Ashe Wimbledon '69 semi. Anyone who watched the youtube clip Steve linked can see more of the same in that match. Shorter points, but shotmaking galore from both of them. Just more of it, and more consistency, too, from Laver.

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 09:10 PM

skip, KP: I think I'll be buying that Laver/Ashe Wimbledon '69 semi soon ...

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 09:29 PM

Steve: Thanks for posting a link to that Lave-Borg match. Great stuff - I especially liked the no-man's land volley and forehand drop shot from the backhand corner by Laver.

Posted by 11/27/2007 at 10:06 PM

Sam--I read a New York Times article quoting a stringer (or was it a racquet club worker?) who said that no other player in the top 100 plays with Roger's head size and racquet, and that the weight of the racquet would ruin club players. My guess is it's pretty heavy in the Sampras Pro Staff style.

Posted by CL 11/27/2007 at 10:22 PM

And yet nobody has mentioned Laver's pink shorts? Tsk, tsk. Where they supposed to match his hair?

Steve - I don't know why you were suprised that Roger couldn't get a read on Pete's serve, esp. of that wicked fast last court, which took away what little reaction time there was. Same old, same old. You can see it even on the Wimby match clips. A major part of Pete's serve dominence was exactly that - its unreadability... I think in the end that counted more than speed and almost as much as placement.

Posted by Ryan 11/27/2007 at 10:33 PM

Oops that 10:06 was me.

Posted by Sam 11/27/2007 at 10:57 PM

Thanks Ryan.

CL: Laver's game took away the attention from the pink shorts ...
Agree that the disguise combined with speed made Sampras' serve so effective. I read years ago about his first coach (Pete Fischer) made him hit various types of serves off the same toss - he would make Sampras throw the ball up and yell out "slice", etc. afterwards.

Posted by Eddy 11/28/2007 at 04:33 AM

TG Randini, slams is the standard for measuring Goat. There's no reason why that shouldn't work anymore. It's easy, and accurate. Sampras is still the Goat to me.
Good article Steve. I love that Sampras interview link. He sure didn't seem arrogant in that one. I think I might've been a fan if I could've been. Shame.
Sam, if I could train like that...

Posted by Jonathan 11/28/2007 at 06:11 AM

This is great Steve!
Glad to see a journalist who is actually knowledgeable about the pre-Open Era...
I agree with your choice, except that I was a bit surprised not to see the greatest "comeback kid" of all time in tennis history: Ken Rosewall!
There have been enough matches where he was supposedly 'way past his prime', and still crushed a much younger champion, to fill this whole post. The most famous are probably the '74 matches:

-at Wimbledon, Newcombe was favoured to win. He was undefeated in SW19 since 1969 (he couldn't play there in 1972 and 1973). Newcombe had won 2 slams the previous year. He was almost 15 years younger than Rosewall, whose 1954 wimbledon final he watched on TV as a little kid... Rosewall beat him in 4 sets.

-then, in the semis, Rosewall met Stan Smith, 1972 #1 and Wimbledon champion. He beat him in 4 sets too.
Unfortunately, Rosewall, very tired was then crushed by young Jimmy Connors in the title match.

-at the US Open the same year, Newcombe thought he would have a shot at Connors this time, and could have a chance to claim the top spot. He met Rosewall in the semis. Guess what? Rosewall reached the final!

(there were plenty of other such upsets by a more-than-forty-year-old Rosewall in the 70s, among them:
-win over Wimbledon runner-up Nastase in the Hong kong final, at age 42, in 1976
-win over titleholder Edmonson in the Australian Open QF in 1977
-many wins over former or soon-to-be Grand Slam champions, all of them twenty-something, in 1977 and 1978, including Gerulaitis, Ashe, Tanner, Orantes, etc...)

Posted by Rob York 11/28/2007 at 06:16 AM

"Pete better hope the Fed doesn't get wind that some rather stupid Yankees take exo's serious."

It is perfectly justifiable to believe Federer is a better player than Sampras, but this is just a sport; there is no reason for you to call anyone here stupid (much less an entire nationality) because they have a different opinion about a tennis player than you.

It's not like Federer needs TG Randini to prove anything for him.

Posted by andre b. 11/28/2007 at 08:35 AM

i think the best argument on this GOAT discussions is to say that Laver, Borg, Sampras and Federer are on the GOAT pantheon (G as Greatest); Lendl, McEnroe, Connors, Agassi, are on the 2nd, and extremely dignified, GOAT squad. (G a Greats of All Time, not Greatest. IMHO, i dont think Mac is up in the first squad as you put him.

Posted by Suresh 11/28/2007 at 10:22 AM

'slams is the standard for measuring Goat'

It might be easy, but is it accurate?

This is a case of judging the great players of the past from today's perspective, when the the two perspectives were different.
It is a very simplistic way of judging greatness.

It could be that different criteria have different weightage.
Just looking at the numbers not only puts players like Borg and Laver at a disadvantage, but also players like Gonzalez, Hoad etc.

The number of majors seem to be the benchmark of measurement.
Also it is recognized by many that the great players in the history of the game did not have the chance to rack up the numbers for various reasons. If the above two statements are true, then the first statement by itself cannot be used to define greatness.

Thats why many polls still put Laver at the top when only the open era is considered. Also, the reason why Borg sometimes is put ahead of Sampras. Federer of course comes into the equation now.

Posted by Titanium 11/28/2007 at 10:32 AM

I don't think Connors is in the GOAT dicussion anymore, but he probably was at one point. Check out the following footage from 1975, the year after Connors won 3 grand slams. Connors, aged 22, is taking on a 36-year old Laver at Caesar's Palace in a winner-take-all $100,000 nationally televised match. Connors eventually won by a score of 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, but, like Steve, I was amazed at how good Laver was.

I liked Laver's S&V and his backhand. I thought he hit his forehand with a bit too much topspin which made it more vulnerable to attack. Regardless, it takes little imagination to see how good he would have been in his prime.

Posted by SwissMaestro 11/28/2007 at 10:32 AM

"I’m used to seeing Federer handle even the most lethal deliveries with nonchalance"

Me too, like those of the Karlovics, Roddicks, Ancics, Ljubicics or Isners of the world. Serves that are way more powerful than Sampras' and Roger still handles them for as long as it takes to break them, remember USO quarterfinals against Roddick? Ihave never seen anyone serving that big and that consistent for that long. I mean A-Rod was throwing fire at Federer for over 2 hours!! including this one 140 mph booming delivery Roger read well enough to barely get his racquet to and put it on the opposite baseline for a return winner. Roddick's face said it all, like thinking "this is ridiculous"...

Posted by SwissMaestro 11/28/2007 at 10:36 AM

and one more thing, big servers do not trouble Roger, he blocks back unlike any other I have ever seen... what troubles Federer are players that are so much of a counterpuncher, so much of a putting everything back in play guys that can get on his nerves, then he feels pressured and forced to go for yet another tougher shot closer to the line and then he misses, this is exactly how (Nadal, Cañas anyone???) defensive players can have a chanve against Federer's shotmaking brilliance but if he is to have one of those days when he does not miss a shot these guys could be less embarrassed by not even walking on to the court...

Posted by steve 11/28/2007 at 10:51 AM

thanks for the article, kp. didn't know they played dubs either—what a thought. i know the atp is inaccurate at times, but at least there is some record of the stuff somewhere.

skip, i definitely want to see that ashe/laver match from 69. rosewall: i don't know, he seemed like the agassi of his era, always just below laver, but good enough to beat him plenty of times.

i'd also be interested in seeing laver at the french and how he played on clay. i'm assuming he didn't change his game much—maybe he really was the best ever.

cl: good point on sampras' unreadability. i think it was something pete fischer specifically worked on, getting him to hit any serve with the same toss and motion.

Posted by Robin Pratt 11/28/2007 at 12:08 PM

Gonzales always said playing Rosewall wore him out, whether he won or lost. He also said that Hoad was the only player who could beat him at his best.

I think Hoad combines most of the best qualities of Federer and Nadal. He was unbelievably strong like Nadal (a friend saw him bounce a BACKHAND overhead 30 rows into the stands on grass at Forest Hills with a wooden racket, of course). He had all the shots and imaginatin of Federer. He was more erratic than Rosewall or many others, but his best could have beaten almost anyone then and maybe now under comparable conditions. His career was cut short by the pros and then his back.

Yes, Kramer has touted Budge as GOAT, but he also said if he had to pick one player to play one match with his (Kramer's) life on the line, he would pick Gonzales, a man he beat early in his (Pancho's) career.

Posted by steve 11/28/2007 at 12:20 PM

sam: sampras' racquet, like all the pros, was heavier than the rec models of the same frame, either through lead tape or customizing. i'm sure fed's is heavy as hell too.

budge used a 16-ouncer, right?

i tried the fed k-factor 90 this summer (which is essentially the same thing as sampras' old pro staff), with a hybrid of luxilon and synthetic, and by sept. my shoulder was permanently sore. i need a non-poly that won't break next summer

the heaviest racquet i ever played with regularly was the original dunlop mcenroe/graf stick. (200g?). i still can't believe i used that at 14 years old

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 12:45 PM

thanks for posting that, Titanium. In all those old BBC Wimbledon matches there are no on-court microphones, so you really don't get a sense of how hard players are hitting. In that Connors-Laver match it sounds like they are crushing the ball.

steve, here is a link from another site that has links to French Open highlights of Laver(and many others)

Posted by Twist Serve 11/28/2007 at 12:52 PM

*That clip of Laver vs. Connors was good and it showed what a varied game Laver had. But the clip was edited to make it seem like Laver was winning most of the points in the match when in fact he lost most of the points.

*Somehow Boris Becker absolutely has to be in this sea-change discussion. Suddenly we had a serve-and-volleyer who (unlike Noah and McEnroe and Vitas, etc.) hit his groundstrokes hard enough to at times overpower the leading power baseliners of the day.

*I'm always puzzled by the perception that Sampras simply has more power than Federer and that Federer mostly feathers his way to victory. Seems to me that the one thing that separates Federer from the typical finesse player (say, a McEnroe) is that he's so good at taking the power player's power and shoving it right back down that player's throat. This is what happened when Sampras tried to overpower him at Wimbledon and it's what happens every time Roddick plays him.


Posted by Twist Serve 11/28/2007 at 01:35 PM

"5. Sampras' demolishing of McEnroe was astonishing."

Hey, skip1515:
McEnroe won a set, so to call it a demolition is a little strong. "Demolishing'' suggests it couldn't have been worse.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 02:01 PM

also, I think that we should be wary of reading too much into just watching 'clips' in judging how many of the past greats played. There are only a handful of Laver matches available on the internet, the guy had a very long career with many great moments, does it seem fair to come to any conclusion about a player on the basis of so few matches(or in the case of some fans, the basis of a few minutes on youtube?)

We are fortunate to see, what 60-70 matches of Federer televised per year for the last 4 years? And almost as many as Sampras during his prime. Using just one or 2 minutes or 1 or 2 matches to assess their game would be considered absurd.

I advise anyone who really is interested about this stuff to seek out books, magazines, newspapers, etc from that time period to learn how they really played, not just looking at footage today, and try to draw conclusions in hindsight. Rod Laver's book, The Education of A Tennis Player is a good start. You can learn about how much thought he put into tactics, adjusting his game to certain players or surfaces, his string tension, racquets, fitness excercises etc.

Laver was called a 'small-ball' player here in the past, one who just used guile, court sense etc to win(like Santoro or something), when virtually no one called him that type of player in his prime. Maybe we'll call Federer that in 30 years as well, when racquet technology is pushed to another level.

Laver was a shotmaker, one of the few guys in his time who could & did just blow guys away, hitting winners from everywhere. He played extremely high risk tennis, not percentage tennis. No one, not Newcombe, Roche, Rosewall, Smith, etc was capable of the shots he hit. Just read the articles from back then where they say this over & over again.

I know its hard for most to understand this today, seeing that wood racquets haven't been used by pros(or amateurs really) since 1982 or so.

I did some stats on Laver's matches with Newcombe & Ashe from '69 W(and not counting aces & service winners, which are counted in stats today)

Laver d Ashe 2-6, 6-2, 9-7, 6-0.

Laver had 10 aces, 3 doubles. Ashe 7 aces, 5 doubles

Laver 43 winners

Ashe 26 winners

Laver d Newcombe 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4

Laver had 10 aces and 7 doubles. Newcombe 4 aces and 8 doubles.

Laver 54 winners

Newcombe 25 winners

That's an awful amount of winners for a player that supposedly just played 'cat & mouse' tennis. I think Laver hit more winners off the ground in those matches than Mac hit in a month. Comparing the 2 isn't really a good idea, very different players, regardless of Laver being Mac's 'idol.'

And Newcombe & Ashe were regarded as much bigger servers than Laver, yet he outaced both of them.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 02:36 PM

Going back to the original topic, almost none of the matches mentioned were considered matches between 2 alltime greats at the time they were played. Sampras had 0 slams when he played Lendl. Fed had 0 slams when he played Sampras, its not like these matches had a tremendous amount of hype before they were played.

And keep in mind Mac had only one slam when he played Borg in '80, while Borg had 9. In a way they were from separate eras as well.

In terms of most slams present on a court(not at the time of course) this has to be up there:

23 slams: Roy Emerson d Bjorn Borg 7-5 6-7 6-4 6-4 1st Round 1972 US Open. Check out this link, apparently the US Open was larger than a 128 draw that year. Strange.

In terms of 2 players that were actually considered all time greats at the time of the matches being played, I guess some of the later Sampras-Agassi meetings count, as well as Agassi-Federer. But other than that, not too many. When Lendl beat up on Connors & Mac in their later years, it wasn't really hyped that way.

One of the memorable matches involving an alltime great holding off another was when Evert beat Seles 60,62 at the '89 US Open. Very few gave Evert much of a shot, & she played one of the best matches of her career.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 02:45 PM

Yeah, I'm pretty sure the 2002 US Open final(Sampras-Agassi) had the most combined slams present on court at the time of the match in the Open Era.

There were 20 slams between the 2 at the time.

Its pretty remarkable they were able to play that well at that age, it would have been like seeing Mac vs Lendl playing in the US Open final in their 30s.

Posted by Suresh 11/28/2007 at 02:57 PM

KP, great post.

I have a few dvd's from the website and watching an entire match compared to a few minutes puts things in a better perspective.

The number of majors won at the time when the players played each other is often overlooked.

Posted by Twist Serve 11/28/2007 at 02:57 PM


Seles was 15 when she played Evert at the U.S. Open, hadn't attained her full height yet, and was clearly overwhelmed at the idea of beating the sentimental favorite on such a huge stage in Evert's home country. I remember watching the match. Seles played like all she wanted to do was get off the court as quickly as possible.

Posted by Suresh 11/28/2007 at 03:03 PM

Wasn't Seles starting out?

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 03:08 PM

Twist Serve, do you think Seles tanked? She was a nice girl & all, but I doubt that.

Maybe she was a bit overwhelmed by the occassion(the only other major I can think of that approached the media coverage of Evert that year was Agassi at last year's Open. Everytime Evert stepped on court that US Open, the atmosphere felt like a final)

Regardless I thought Evert played out of her mind, I really didn't think she was capable of that kind of tennis at that point in her career. She kept the ball so deep, concentrated like she did in her prime.

Seles beat Evert in Houston earlier that year, & she almost beat Graf in the semis of the French later that year. Many obituaries for Chris were already written before they even stepped on the court at the Open.

Posted by Twist Serve 11/28/2007 at 03:18 PM


A bit overwhelmed? She was in full get-me-out-of-here mode. Anybody else remember watching this match? And, if someone has a tape of this match, you can see she was no taller than Evert (who is at most 5-6) and clearly wanted to get off the court. If Evert really was good enough in 1989 to flatten a determined Seles, there would have been no reason to retire.
Anyway, I've gotta go now, otherwise I'd love to keep going with this.

Posted by steve 11/28/2007 at 03:27 PM

not to change the subject, but i've got a quick davis cup preview over at

carry on

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 04:22 PM

Twist, I have that match on tape somewhere, I will check to see Seles' height, she grew a lot that year, I don't think she was shorter than Evert. Even if she wasn't, she almost beat Graf at Roland Garros that year, so she was already a formidable foe whatever height she was.

As far saying that if Evert was capable of beating Seles, there would be no reason to retire, well we all know the problems with aging champions is that they can't keep up that level consistently anymore. Many can & have played a few great matches in their twilight.

I think Evert even said after the Seles match, "If I can play this well consistently I wouldn't retire, but I know I can't do that." And she didn't keep it up, losing to Zina Garrison for like only the 2nd time in 20 career meetings in the match after the Seles match.

Martina once said, 'the problem with getting old is not that you can't play great tennis anymore, its that you don't know what day you'll play great tennis."

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 04:50 PM

another great turn back the clock moment was Seles beating Hingis 63,62 at the '98 French. Hingis had owned Seles up to that point.

Posted by JR 11/28/2007 at 04:58 PM

This has been a cornucopia. I think I’ve seen just about everyone mentioned here, even Budge (in doubles, probably the same year he beat Pancho). Pancho was my first (and, therefore, my all-time) tennis hero. I’ve probably seen him live more than anyone (it used to be easier to see the greats in person, although not much on TV). It was great to see Rod—it’s been a long time. I guess I’ll have to get that Laver-Ashe video.

Someone in these parts mentioned the ’73 US-Aussie DC final recently. I’ve never looked forward to or enjoyed a DC tie as much as that one; the original dream team-- Newcombe, Laver, Rosewall and Roche—back, at last, in DC.

Posted by CmonAussie 11/28/2007 at 06:05 PM

@ the 1977 semi-exho between Borg & Laver, you referred to Laver as "30-something"! Actually Laver was 39 years old, so he was a lot closer to 40 than 30!

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 06:34 PM

JR, could you tell us more about the times you've seen Pancho live? Do you remember any specific events/years/opponents in those matches?

You said it was easier to see players live back then, how so? Were tickets that easy to get(just show up day of the event)? How much?
Were the events well-promoted(fans knew when they'd be in town, etc)?

Who else did you see live? Any Pancho Segura(really curious about that forehand)? Lew Hoad?


Posted by Sam 11/28/2007 at 07:00 PM

This was a great article Steve. Pieces like this interest me far more than the repetitive tennis gambling news. These last few Tennis Magazine pieces concentrating on the GOATs and the pointless GOAT debate have been extraordinary. Keep it up. And it is about time, a modern writer on ESPN acknowledges Rod Laver. I've seen Bud Collins mention him a few times but otherwise he seems forgotten in these parts.

Rod Laver was one of the first tennis gods. He was one of the most consistent players and his game was flawless. People shouldn't be comparing Roger Federer's near perfect game to Pete Sampras' power serve game, they should be comparing Roger Federer's game to Rod Laver's. Federer is not as unique as many of his fans may think.

My only fault with this article is how Steve completely forgot about mentioning two other contenders to the GOAT title: Roy Emerson and Ken Rosewall. Both of these players were consistent Grand Slam champions. Rosewall was almost like Laver's kryptonite. I am very surprised that Steve forgot to mention Dallas match in the 70s between Rosewall and Laver as it is considered one of the greatest tennis matches of all time and should be on Steve's list of legend vs. legend faceoffs.

Those who claim the old players weren't as good because grass courts were common and wooden rackets were used don't understand that the sport is continuing to evolve in front of us. It was only a few years ago the instant replay challenge system was introduced. The Australian Open used to be so minor that players (like Borg) skipped it.

Posted by Jonathan 11/28/2007 at 07:09 PM

Steve, you can see videos of Laver at the French on, at least his 1968 and 1969 finals.

I don't think Rosewall was the Agassi of his era. Agassi did have a long career, but he was #1 only one year, and not very dominant, because in his youth he was dominated by Sampras, and then couldn't compete every time with the younger guys.
Rosewall at first had 3 or 4 years when he dominated the tour, at his peak ('60-'63), and THEN he lost the top spot to Laver, but was still able to beat him many times each year. What is extraordinary is how Rosewall seemed to become better than Laver in his late 30s. He beat him in Dallas in '71 and '72, and won 3 Slams after Laver's last one.

Posted by 11/28/2007 at 07:35 PM


Seeing how Borg starting secretly talking to his wife about retiring as early as 1980, did McEnroe really take his No. 1 spot, or did Borg give it away? McEnroe himself said in his book that he could tell when he played Borg at the 81 Wimbledon final that Bjorn didn't look as hungry as the year before.

Remember, no one in the history of the game, including Fed, accomplished as much as Borg did at such an early age. When he was 25 he was really 35.

That's why Monterey, your comparison between Borg and Fed does't work. Borg had no feeling out period in the beginning of his career like Fed did. He was a phenom from day one. Won his first Davis Cup match at 14!!! The guy is just the most extraordinary player ever. Not the greatest, but the most extraordinary.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 07:52 PM

Yeah, this whole 'Mac forced Borg into retirement thing' gets way too much play. Hardly anyone said that at the time(once again, reading up on actual articles from a time period is the best way to learn about it, not what reading what somebody says today)

Just look up Borg's activity in 1980, he only played 14 events! And was fined bigtime for that. The ATP was on his ass for years for not playing more. He played only 9 in '81! They demanded he sign a player committment contract & he told them to shove it. And then when talked about coming back in '83, they told him he would have to qualify for WIMBLEDON unless he signed their contract. Borg told them to shove it.

For anyone paying attention, Borg was looking ahead to retirement long before Mac was on his radar.

Its a shame how poorly players were treated back then. Vilas got a big ban for appearance money(which everyone does now)
Its amazing that tennis managed to survive such poor organization.

Remember, there was no ATP until 1990.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 08:00 PM

Oh, and on Rosewall. He won sort of a Pro Grand Slam(the French Pro, US Pro, Wembley) in 1963, which should be more well-known today. It certainly was more impressive than Laver's amateur Grand Slam in 1962.
He was no Agassi. If you look at all the 'major' events played by pros pre Open Era, he won more than anyone else, Gonzales & Laver included. Problem is he was still good past his prime to play into his late 30s, so people forget how good he was in his prime when he was getting tooled by Connors in major finals. Kinda the same thing happened with Connors, now today people constantly bring up his head to head with Lendl, even though there is a major age difference & many of their matches were past his prime.

Posted by KP 11/28/2007 at 08:05 PM

here is a great article on Laver vs Rosewall

an excerpt:

"We don't know how many times we played," says Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket, whose greatness was saluted in the naming of the Australian Open's principal ballroom. "Nobody was counting."

It wasn't like the celebrated 16-year rivalry of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, closely monitored, often televised, led by Martina 43-37.

But somebody has counted, somebody doing it years later following the far-flung movements of Laver and Rosewall, as though shadowing secret agents by haunting libraries and digging through newspapers. That somebody is Austrian tennis historian Robert Geist. He will soon publish his research, hailing Laver the victor, narrowly, 75-66. He tracked down results in Nairobi, Kenya; Harare, Zimbabwe; East London, South Africa; Knokke le Zoute, Belgium; Lake Tahoe, Nevada; Perth, places where Evert and Navratilova would never have ventured.

Both vividly remember their 1972 collision in Dallas, the World Championship Tennis final, as an Everestian summit. They went at each other furiously for five sets, three hours, a televised struggle that wowed and turned on the US: 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-5). In the concluding tie-breaker, Laver led 5-4 with two serves to come. He southpawed two vicious hooks. But Rosewall — he of the peerless backhand — smacked both for winners, then served the last point of the closest finish of an important championship.

First prize, $50,000, was unheard of in that day. Rosewall, slumped in the dressing room, said: "I never dreamed that at 37, I'd be doing something like this for money like this. I thought I'd be selling insurance or something."

Instead, he and Laver were selling tennis to the public, and they did it for a long time. Rosewall won his last title at 43, Hong Kong in 1977; Laver at 37, Orlando, Florida, in 1975. They locked horns for 14 years during their brilliant careers — 141 matches.

There could have been a few more. "I'm still looking," says the stats miner, Geist.

Laver held a 22-9 edge during the Open era, but Rosewall won their farewell joust at Houston.

Posted by skip1515 11/28/2007 at 08:26 PM

It's so easy to forget how much more difficult it was to play with wooden racquets. The videos can't get that across, thought it's not their fault.

Hell, I grew up with them and can't imagine using one today.

It wasn't that hitting the ball hard wasn't possible, it was that hitting the ball hard *and* in consistently was so much tougher. That was what made Laver so superior: he could hit harder, more often, than anyone else, and added to that a consistency on regulation groundstrokes that was top shelf, plus first class mobility and Gibraltar-like resolve.

(And while we're at it, let's give some additional credit to Newcombe and Gonzales, who played with the Challenge #1 and Spaulding frames that had even smaller heads than the standard racquets of the day.)

As many have said, anyone who dismisses the wooden racquet era players because the points seem to pale in comparison to today's, fails to understand what world class skill was required to play with those wood sticks; a superior athleticism that would let those players excel today.

Twist Serve, I understand your point about Mac's having taken a set in that match, but my memory of having watched it was that Sampras just hit right through McEnroe, something that was never expected and accomplished so completely that it was astounding. Whether McEnroe won a set or not (and I realize he did), the momentum of the contest rested with Sampras the entire time, and the contrast in styles and effectiveness signaled a new era in tennis.

Of course, the same could be said of Safin's beat down of Sampras years later, except that unlike Sampras before him, Safin never showed that he was capable of dominating tennis day in and day out, for months and years on end.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/28/2007 at 08:41 PM

Thank you for this post, Steve. As Robin said, you gave us all a much-needed perspective on the GOAT discussion. I've always thought that Sampras' serve was the single best shot I've witnessed and, being a serve, perhaps the most determining shot in tennis history. Of course, I never saw the Tilden serve or the Budge backhand. They, too, are considered extremely lethal. Laver's genius I think lay in his all-court acumen coupled with his uncanny tactical mind. He could hit all the shots and he knew how to use them. That he and Pancho Gonzalez and others spoke so highly of Hoad only makes me wonder about that Aussie comet. The trouble is that we cannot speak of GOATs without also speaking of records and Grand Slams, etc. So on that basis, I've never felt compelled to mention Hoad, other than as an aside. I suppose the same can be said of Gonzalez as of Hoad, except that Pancho certainly had a long and successful career. Trouble is, he spent most of it touring as a pro, and therefore wasn't able to amass any significant Grand Slam record.

As for Robin's assertion that Federer would have done quite nicely thank you in the age of wood and grass, I think he is spot on. That's why I appreciate his genius all the more: his ability transcends the technology, the power, the surface.

Still, I think Sampras would have been able to give him a great run for the money were they to have met repeatedly in their primes. And if I had to choose on man to play a tiebreak for my life, it would be awfully difficult not to choose Sampras. Although Federer would do just fine, I'm sure.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/28/2007 at 08:55 PM

Sam, funny that you mention Emerson and Rosewall. I, too, felt that the Laver-Rosewall matches might have qualified, except that it seems few people include Rosewall in their GOAT discussions. At least not as a real contender for ACTUAL GOAT. One of the top-32 certainly.

Regarding Emerson: oddly enough, I tend to refer to him when making the argument that Grand Slam titles are not and should not be the sole litmus test for admission into the GOAT discussion. Let's face the facts: Emmo is now tied for second in Grand SLam singles titles with 12, yet his name rarely, if ever, is mentioned alongside Laver, Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Budge, Tilden, Gonzalez, Sampras, and now Federer. In fact, he seems to have fallen beyond the second tier, as well. The latter is odd to me, though, as he was a very accomplished and titled doubles player. In fact, people talk a lot about how McEnroe could do it all -- winning something like 78 singles titles and 77 doubles titles (sorry gang, but I'm not in the mood to check my stats at the moment). Yet those same people forget that Emerson was as good on the doubles court as he was on the singles court. Still, he doesn't make my top 10. Maybe top 15. Weird, isn't it?

Posted by skip1515 11/28/2007 at 09:38 PM

BTW, thanks to all who've posted links to video sites, etc.

I can't remember where I was when I heard it, at one point I was listening to a bunch of the Aussies talking about each other, within the past 5 or 6 years, and someone said, "Emmo missed a return of serve once. When was that, Emmo, '67? "

The GOAT discussion can get old, but way before that it should be divided into two categories: best of all time (a conversation that needs beer), and Best Tennis Ever Demonstrated.

The latter should include examples, and not just What If's, a consideration of match temperament, and the ability to win and not just hit shots. But it excludes a consideration of the players' career lengths and total titles won.

In this way, Vines, Hoad and Gonzales (among others?) can be included more fairly.

Oh, beer is needed for this discussion, too.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 11/29/2007 at 12:30 AM

That's one thing the Aussie's always got right... before tennis, beer. After tennis, beer. And sometimes, DURING tennis.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 08:59 AM

I don't think Australia has the most contenders for the GOAT title. There was a period in the 1940s-1970s with players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad, and John Newcombe where the country was the king of the tennis world. Between 1939 and 1967 the Australian team won 16 Davis Cups all because of these guys. I can't think of any era with so many champions belonging to one country and all getting along. Even Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, and John McEnroe had their fights.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 08:59 AM

I think Australia has the most contenders for the GOAT title. There was a period in the 1940s-1970s with players like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad, and John Newcombe where the country was the king of the tennis world. Between 1939 and 1967 the Australian team won 16 Davis Cups all because of these guys. I can't think of any era with so many champions belonging to one country and all getting along. Even Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, and John McEnroe had their fights.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 09:00 AM

Whoops double post.

Posted by Twist Serve 11/29/2007 at 12:33 PM


I remember the Sampras-McEnroe U.S. Open match. I was pulling hard for McEnroe. I don't argue with your point that Sampras overpowered McEnroe. I'm just aruging that the word "demolishing'' was too strong for a match where the losing player lost 6-3 in the fourth. I think a demolition is what McEnroe did to Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon final; 6-1, 6-1, 6-2.

Posted by KP 11/29/2007 at 12:39 PM

have any of you looked at those FO links posted? Notice how hard they are swinging?

I think, in a way, grasscourt play with wood racquets provides a false impression of what that era was like. Since bounces were so bad, & players had little time to react with such small racquets, they sliced more, just tried to get the ball back anyway. Swinging away would get you nowhere with those racquets.

Even on clay, they got a truer bounce & were able to swing harder, cleaner etc.

Posted by Suresh 11/29/2007 at 01:28 PM

Swinging consistently with wood racquets as compared to the modern day racquets is obviously more difficult. Not only does it take the power away, it affects the consistency and obviously affects the arm, stamina etc. of the players.

In a study, players like Sampras, Philipoussis were asked to serve with wooden racquets. The speeds achieved with the wooden were 'almost' comparable to those achieved with their regular racquets, but the serving percentage suffered.

The serve has made the biggest difference in the modern game when compared to the previous eras - in that the effect of one stroke has become more pronounced in today's game.

Of course, there are other differences like hitting winners from the baseline or hitting a strong return but not to the same extent like the serve.

It is definitely relative though..

Posted by KP 11/29/2007 at 01:53 PM

and don't forget hitting kick serves is very difficult with wood racquets. its the 2nd serve where you see the biggest drop-off with wood. Hitting experiments can't show all the difficulties of playing with wood, but match play certainly does.

There were many quite big servers in that era, Ashe, Newcombe, even Borg, etc. And Tanner(though he didn't use wood) was ridiculous, just watched the '77 AO vs Vilas, he looked like he was serving 130 on every 1st serve. On grass Vilas was completely helpless. Anyone who could return that serve with a tiny wood racquet consistently had to be an extraordinary returner.

Posted by Suresh 11/29/2007 at 02:21 PM

True KP. I have tried the old Donnay and it does make a big difference.

Posted by JR 11/29/2007 at 02:59 PM

Sorry, KP, I thought that, as usual, the post would close with mine. I was lucky enough to live in NY, so I had ready access to the US (non-Open), starting as a teen. I was pretty much just a matter of showing up and buying a decent ticket at the door, even late in the tournament. The pros sometimes played at Forest Hills too. One of my fondest memories was a round robin, where I saw Hoad’s pro debut against Pancho; Pancho won in 4, but my Dad said, “This guy is going to give Pancho a run for his money,” and I was afraid he’d be right. Others in that tournament were Trabert, Sedgman, Segoo, Rosewall. (Segoo was kind of the Santoro of his day; Kramer thought his 2h fh was perhaps the greatest shot of all time.) I saw several of Pancho’s MSQ “tour” matches, as well.

One of my favorite Pancho matches was at the Open (Forest Hills), late in his career. It was a hot day, and Pancho was on fumes when the 4th set began. So he played the whole set from the back court (I think only Dick Savitt played from the back court on grass in those days). But he got the late break and S&V it out. Although Pancho had one of the greatest serves of all time, he usually didn’t use the big one (to make things more interesting?) until he got in trouble. Of course, he was so tall and quick at net, that wasn’t much of a concession.

Hoad was the tennis Adonis before Edberg.

Posted by JR 11/29/2007 at 03:16 PM

The Aussies had a great string, Sam. It started (for me) with Sedgman and McGregor, then Hoad and Rosewall, then Anderson, Cooper and Fraser, then Laver, Emerson and Stolle, then Newcombe and Roche.

Posted by JR 11/29/2007 at 03:50 PM

I think that among the reasons Gonzales and Rosewall played so well, so long, was the fact that they had been playing in the wilderness so long; when open tennis came they had a renewed incentive—they were back on the main stages that had been denied them for so long (not to mention the money). Pre-open pro tennis was also a terrific training ground; you played the best on a regular basis and if you slacked off, you were involuntarily retired. Imagine if Roger and Rafa played each other 80 to 100 times a year, with the loser facing the possibility of 2d tier status the following year.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 05:55 PM

Wow, I go away for a day and a half and miss a great discussion. Thanks to whover posted the Connors-Laver link. I haven't seen much footage of Laver, so that was a real treat.

KP: Lots of excellent information in your posts. Thanks for posting the Laver-Rosewall link.

" That's why I appreciate his genius all the more: his ability transcends the technology, the power, the surface."

Slice-n-Dice: Well said, and I totally agree. Nice to see you back - it's been a while.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 06:26 PM

Once when he was commentating (during the 1990s ?), Fred Stolle mentioned the old Aussie motto - "first to the net, first to the pub".

Posted by JR 11/29/2007 at 06:39 PM

Sam: Cute. I miss Fred (with Cliff). I remember him knocking off Newcombe (#1 seed) at the USO (I think they only seeded 8 then). He hit nothing but lines.

Posted by Sam 11/29/2007 at 06:44 PM

JR: I really liked when Stolle did commentary in the U.S. He was paired with Vitus G. for a while, and I thought that they made a great team.

Posted by Samantha 11/29/2007 at 07:56 PM

Borg didn't quit because of Mac, he was burned out from tennis and had a drug problem and a nasty divorce. Borg will ALWAYS be the better player. Borg was pure class on the court while Mac bullied umpires and acted like a 4 year old when he couldn't get his way. Many people believe that Borg would have been the GOAT if he hadn't retired at 26.

Posted by Robin Pratt 11/29/2007 at 09:15 PM

Nice to read so many people with some knowledge of and/or respect for the champions of old.

I am old but did not follow tennis before 1953 with Trabert as my hero and thus rooted against Hoad-Rosewall in Davis Cup. There was very little tennis on television and the sets were small and black and white anyway. I did see Gonzales and Segura in person once. First time I saw Ashe serve (in college) I literally did not see his serve, having never seen a serve that fast.

But I watch with interest the films of players in the 30's amd 40's amd 50's on Tennis Channel. And I have to say that I was impressed with the talent and speed of many of them playing as we have noted, with wood rackets, often on grass courts that showed the signs of wear. As I said earlier, I would certainly give Gonzales, Budge, Kramer, Hoad, Sedgman and, of course, Laver and Rosewall a chance against anyone under comparable conditions. I know Borg could have produced today's strokes if he were 17 again with today's rackets. Vilas and Borg and Nastase and Santana hit some pretty amazing shots back in their days with small rackets.

Yes, players were products of their era. Wooden rackets required a different game on almost all shots. I think one reason for serve and volley style was that the bounces on worn grass courts were so dicey that it was more predictable to be at the net. I think volleying is almost as easy with wooden rackets whereas heavy topspin groundstrokes especially two-handed backhands are much easier with modern rackets.

We will never know how players of various eras would have done against each other. Plus modern players have the advantage of seeing how previous champions played the game. I know that I would have played better if I had seen Federer play when I was 13. No, not nearly as well, but I would have had a better game. I have improved my forehand in my 60's once I finally discarded the old teaching guidelines (turn, racket back, step in, racket through the ball, no wrist). I always wondered why my ping pong forehand was b better than my tennis forehand. It was natural and I could have hit the modern forehand with a wooden racket, but who knew?

I think many of the greats of the past succeeded in spite of equipment, coaching myths, and court conditions.

You can see in both golf and tennis that there are fewer truly distinctive styles than in days gone by [with exception of Santoro]. Today's coaches will not allow some of the idiosyncracies of the past.

Where is Francoise Durr when you need her?

Posted by legnaleugim 11/29/2007 at 09:18 PM

Hi Sam! Remember Lendl was more GOAT than Mac ! Lendl was in the company of Becker,Egdberg,Wilander,Courier,Chang and the rest of the world! That is why Mac still playing; his psycho claims he is not over yet! For Mac ;he cannot acknowledge that there is time for every purpose under heaven! Can Mac do anything that is not tennis related? This fellow is really nuts! Lets hope that US Davis Cup team remember that this is a unique moment,the time to show of what true champions are made off to write history! May the Force be with them!

Posted by legnaleugim 11/29/2007 at 09:18 PM

Hi Sam! Remember Lendl was more GOAT than Mac ! Lendl was in the company of Becker,Egdberg,Wilander,Courier,Chang and the rest of the world! That is why Mac still playing; his psycho claims he is not over yet! For Mac ;he cannot acknowledge that there is time for every purpose under heaven! Can Mac do anything that is not tennis related? This fellow is really nuts! Lets hope that US Davis Cup team remember that this is a unique moment,the time to show of what true champions are made off to write history! May the Force be with them!

Posted by Twist Serve 11/29/2007 at 11:42 PM

Francoise Durr? Now that was a unique (and painful looking) backhand!


I don't think Borg quit just because of McEnroe, but the fact that McEnroe had started getting the best of him in the slams certainly didn't help. Mac won three of their four meetings in slams and won four of the five best-three-of-five-set matches they played (I think).

Posted by Sam 11/30/2007 at 12:05 AM

Mac-Borg H2H:

Posted by omar 11/30/2007 at 01:34 PM


It's the chicken and the egg theory with Borg-McEnroe. Did Mac start getting the best of Borg and that's what made him quit, or did Borg already start thinking about quitting, which allowed Mac to close the gap and start winning those last matches they played.

The proof is in the video. I have a video of a final match in Milan in March of 81 where right in the middle of the match Borg started serving with 2 balls in his hand, an obvious sign that he couldn't care less about winning or losing, seeing how he had a double handed backhand. And this was a Grand Prix tournie final!!

And when Borg says he was burned out in 81, and Mac says he could tell Borg wasn't as hungry in 81, and his coach says Borg cut his practice schedule in half for the first time ever in 81, and his ex-wife Mariana says Borg started talking with her secretly about retiring as early as 1980, isn't it kinda obvious what the truth is here?

And always keep in mind that Mac never faced Borg on clay. That'd be like Fed never having played Rafa on clay. Imagine how lopsided the Fed-Rafa H2H would be if they never played on clay.

Posted by remain anonymous 11/30/2007 at 07:08 PM


You write this....
"Over the past year, I’d gradually begun to believe that Federer in his prime was a better player than Sampras in his—Fed just has more ways to beat you."

Oh really Mr Tignor????

The you go on.....
"Federer knows lots of ways to win, but Sampras knows one big way."

Did you actually see Sampras play??? Nothing left for me to say except it is true... ignorance is bliss!!!!!!!

Posted by skip1515 11/30/2007 at 08:26 PM

remain anonymous:

While it's entirely possible that Mr. Tignor, errrr, Steve, never saw Sampras play except for these exo's, the fact that Agassi's made essentially the same comment* means that either

1. Agassi's ignorant (however blissful), or
2. You're hiding behind "remain anonymous" because your real name's Bridgette Sampras.

Regardless, there's no reason to be rude.

* "With Pete you always knew there was somewhere to go, but with Federer there's nothing to do that gives you an edge" (an approximate quote)

Posted by remain anonymous 11/30/2007 at 10:39 PM


Mr. Tignor said...

"Fed just has more ways to beat you" and "Federer knows lots of ways to win, but Sampras knows one big way."

These statements reflect one of 3 things(or maybe all three)
1. He didn't really see Sampras play or pay much attention
2. He has a certain disdain for Pete deep down
3. He's a Federphile

I believe #3 is true. But the other two are becoming more apparaent. This isn't 1st time I've read something like this from him.

I know I do not back down from any of my statements' He is obviously ignorance to Sampras' abilities or excersising one of the other 2.

No I am not not Brigitte, that's not even original much less funny.

And about Agassi "there's a place you can with Sampras, but no such place with Federer"... oh really???
He was talking about high and away to the backhand side.

2005 US Open F 35 yr old, broke back, cortizone shot getting, coming off 3 straight 5 setters drew 4 winners, 25 unforced form "that place" vs Federer.
What did peak Dre draw from that place in 1995 US Open F vs Sampras???

Sorry Agassi, the evidence does not support your statement!!!

Posted by Suresh 11/30/2007 at 10:39 PM

Anonymous, there are many people who hold that view, you are probably parading your ignorance.

Also, Agassi's views hold greater weightage than yours.

Posted by remain anonymous 11/30/2007 at 11:25 PM

Ahh Suresh back posting trash, some things never change.

views hold more weight than mine..... fine.
The evidence is far more accurate than Agassi opinion is it not???

OK then..... silence.

Posted by Twist Serve 11/30/2007 at 11:58 PM


I, too, hold Agassi's view above all others in the Federer-Sampras debate.

I agree with Tignor's point about Federer having several ways to win while Sampras had one big way. But I think this undermines his suggestion that Sampras may have actually been better. In any sport, you're better off having several ways to subdue opponents. Once other players start figuring out your one big way, the big wins start to dry up fast.

Posted by Twist Serve 12/01/2007 at 12:05 AM

Yes, remain anonymous, since Agassi actually step out on a court against them his opinion is steeped in first-hand knowledge. To rational folks, this matters.

Posted by Suresh 12/01/2007 at 12:21 AM

Anon, 'The evidence is far more accurate than Agassi opinion is it not???'

you mean the evidence as reflected in the numbers/stats gells with Agassi's views ?

Posted by Twist Serve 12/01/2007 at 12:22 AM

Samantha and Omar:

I agree with a lot of folks who say Borg overall had a better career than McEnroe did. He won a bunch of titles even on his worst surface. But can we please stop this business of shortchanging McEnroe in their head-to-heads at slams? Borg was such a proud champion. The idea that he would beat, say, Connors, silly in the semis and then suddenly not be up for the chance to beat McEnroe defies logic.

Borg in the last two years of his career was having trouble beating only one player when it mattered. If he had been as burned out as you say he was, he would have started losing to Connors and Vilas and Vitas and a bunch of other players. He sure didn't look burned out against them.

Posted by Suresh 12/01/2007 at 12:34 AM

Twist serve - agreed.

'But I think this undermines his suggestion that Sampras may have actually been better'

Well, that may or may not be the case. With a headstart ( his serve ), Pete's dominance for example over a 4 year period still does not match Federer's.

Like you said a player is always better off if he has more options. That being said, I also agree that a big serve can have a numbing effect and can overpower other options.

Importantly, like I have posted in the other forum 'Goat war Fed vs Dad' Pete won more than 80% points on first serve a whopping 17 times in his 34 matches against Andre.

Stich and Ferreira did not achieve that even once. Becker did it once. Krajicek 3 or 4 times ( stats not available for a few matches)

In matches involving Pete, Stich, Ferreira etc. both players won more on first serve as each of them had a weaker return game relatively speaking compared to Agassi.

The amount of data available pretty much conforms to what many think of Pete's game - and how much it depends on the serve.

By the same token, if Pete had dominated on clay with his serve, he still might have been considered great on clay - albeit with a rider that the serve helped him.

But that did not happen . When faced with a slower surface, or a big server with a decent/good allround game, Pete's game was blunted.

Posted by Suresh 12/01/2007 at 12:36 AM

Best of all, this is what Anon thinks of Steve Tignor -

'These statements reflect one of 3 things(or maybe all three)
1. He didn't really see Sampras play or pay much attention
2. He has a certain disdain for Pete deep down
3. He's a Federphile'

Keep it up!

Posted by remain anonymous 12/01/2007 at 04:55 AM

Suresh I said it and I stand by it!!!!

Steve said...
"Fed just has more ways to beat you" and "Federer knows lots of ways to win, but Sampras knows one big way."

Was he watching the same Sampras as me??? "One big way". Yet Sampras may be the most gifted offensive player to ever hoist a racquet, and was easily one of it's greatest athletes.

Now as far as Agassi. Why did OLD Agassi have more success going to "that place" vs PEAK Federer than PEAK Agassi did with PEAK Sampras????

Evidence does not lie.

Posted by remain anonymous 12/01/2007 at 05:00 AM

Twist serve did I say Agassi's opinion did not have merit. It seems Suresh is bleaching your brain!!!

Yes it does, but is it above the evidence??? No. If there was now place to go vs Federer explain the 4 winners, 25 unforced errors he drew from Roger's backhand in 2005 US Open F???

What about Kuerten, Moya and Kafelnikov, They all played both, and all three say Sampras is definitively better. How much weight do their opinions hold???

Posted by skip1515 12/01/2007 at 09:30 AM

remain anonymous,

My point is not that Steve is right, or even that Agassi is. As it happens I agree with both of them, but that's not the issue.

What is the issue is that there's no need to call anyone ignorant.

Of course you're entitled to your opinion, as are Kuerten, Moya and Kafelnikov. I recommend, however, that you retire the question mark and exclamation mark keys on your computer, and save the name calling for the school yard.

Posted by Twist Serve 12/01/2007 at 11:27 AM

remain anonymous:

Agassi's weight carries so much weight because he was Sampras's greatest rival. They met 34 times, including multiple times on all the surfaces. Agassi also met Federer and Sampras when they were at the height of their powers. And he likes them both, so there are no hard feelings or sour grapes or scores to settle in his comments. I'm not sure how Kuerten, Kafelnikov and Moya personally feel about Federer. Moya's 0-7 against him including a loss to Federer when Federer was ranked around 300. This could be why his opinion isn't cited as having much credibility.

Kafelnikov isn't exactly Mr. Credibility. His last victory over Federer happened when Federer was 19 and still having trouble winning two matches in a row. He never play the guy who Bodo refers to as The Mighty Fed. As for Kafelnikov's opinions, one of them was to complain that the money in men's tennis is "ridiculous.'' Agassi responded to that by saying Kafelnikov needed to "take his money and buy some perspective.'' (or something like that).

*Guga's opinion carries more weight than the other two. But the sample size is small (just three matches against both players), the last meeting happening against Federer on clay shortly after Federer became No. 1.

Despite all of these opinions what matters most is how well Federer and Sampras did against the field, not how well they did against a certain player.

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